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Tories' badly made anti-terror bill needs serious scrutiny

New Democratic MP Randall Garrison argues one warning sign about the security legislation is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper couldn’t say whether it would have prevented either October attack.

Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Security: are you for it or against it? That's how the Conservative government has framed the debate over its new anti-terror legislation. Would the opposition dare stand up against it?

So far, they haven't, or not much anyway. But there are signs the NDP is mustering the gall to raise objections – and that they'll press them Wednesday, when debate on the bill starts in the Commons. They'll be doing a public service. This is shoddily crafted legislation.

There was a danger this bill was going to slide through the Commons without even serious questioning, because politicians fear being labelled anti-security. Justin Trudeau's Liberals decided to fold: they lamely raised concerns but said they'd vote for the bill anyway.

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The Liberals are cowering after voting against the military mission against Islamic State. An Ipsos-Reid poll released Friday found 76 per cent favour that mission. Why would the Liberals compound their political error by opposing security legislation? Another poll, by Léger Marketing, found 74 per cent of Quebeckers back more anti-terror powers.

Yes, the Conservatives think they have a winner, that the public wants more security measures after two attacks in Canada in October, as well as in Australia and France. They're trying to talk about jihadis. When police foiled a Halifax mall shooting this weekend, Justice Minister Peter Mackay argued the young people involved were the kind who might have been radicalized by Islamic State – struggling to construct a non-existent jihadi link.

New Democratic MP Randall Garrison argues one warning sign about the security legislation is that Prime Minister Stephen Harper couldn't say whether it would have prevented either October attack. He notes the government cut the RCMP's budget, though the Mounties say their national-security resources are thin. This bill is being rushed out because of the October attacks, Mr. Garrison said, so "you ought to be able to say it would have helped prevent them."

Maybe that's too hypothetical. But the government certainly ought to be able to say what this bill does. Its big feature is a mandate for CSIS spies to disrupt threats, rather than collect intelligence. But when the NDP asked in the Commons for examples of what CSIS would do differently, Mr. MacKay danced.

Here's the problem: no one knows what this bill really means. Not Mr. Mackay, not Mr. Trudeau, not Mr. Harper. They cannot. Its major changes are written in broad terms with vague language. The courts will define parts of it, eventually. So will CSIS, in secret, over many years.

What are CSIS's new powers to disrupt threats? The bill actually says CSIS "may take measures, within or outside Canada, to reduce the threat." It doesn't say what. It does say a judge must authorize measures that break the law or violate the Charter of Rights – opening a new era of judges defining the legality of unspecified illegal actions.

In briefings of journalists, the government's examples of "measures" were talking to families of radicalized individuals and tampering with plotters' equipment. But the definition is wide open. CSIS will be able to run covert agents to infiltrate groups for more than just intelligence. That power had previously been reserved to the RCMP, which is more accountable.

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You might want CSIS to do more to thwart terrorists. But the new powers aren't only for use against terrorists, or even people breaking the law. CSIS can disrupt any national security threat – and that is widely defined, including undermining Canada's diplomatic relations, economic stability, or critical infrastructure.

Of course, Canada won't suddenly turn into a police state. CSIS is not allowed to target lawful dissent – their hands are already full. But free societies don't rely on spies and police to set their own limits.

Before MPs went away for last week's Commons break, the NDP was asking increasingly pointed questions. Let's hope they follow through with enough gall to at least question the flaws in this badly made bill.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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